Graduation rates in the southern part of the United States were several points lower than the national average in 2002, according to estimates by Christopher Swanson of the Urban Institute. According to his analysis, high schools in the South graduated only 64.5 percent of their students, with African Americans (55.3 percent) and Latinos (56.3) faring far worse than their white (70.5 percent) and Asian (82.2 percent) peers. (The southern region is defined as the District of Columbia and the sixteen states that practiced legally imposed segregation prior to Brown v. Board of Education. They include West Virginia, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Virginia.)
A separate report, Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in the South, by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, focuses on five of the states-Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina. These states report graduation rates in 2002 ranging from a high of 85 percent in North Carolina to a low of 62 percent in Georgia. However, when the more reliable method developed by Swanson was used, the graduation rates fell far lower. According to the report, “lax enforcement” of the No Child Left Behind Act’s graduation rate requirements has led to different reporting methods and state Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals that are “virtually useless.”
As the report notes, the southern region of the United States offers itself as a unique test case for a study of graduation rates because of its student makeup and history of unlawful school segregation. While the South has always been home to a majority of African Americans and has seen a very large influx of Latino students over the past years, it continues to have many predominately white schools with concentrated poverty, making it very different from the rest of the country, which has few such schools. However, as the report demonstrates, these poor, predominately white schools are just as likely to have very low graduation rates as urban schools that house poor, predominately African-American students.
Upon further examination, the report found that very few schools in these five states “beat the odds” and graduated a higher than expected percentage of their students. Using a method from researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the report found a “dearth” of schools that had a “promoting power” of at least 80 percent, and where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free lunch and 25 percent or more of students are black or Latino. (Promoting power is defined as a school’s success in moving students from grade to grade, averaged over three years.)
In Georgia, the report did not identify a single school that met the criteria. In Florida, there were only two such schools, with four in North Carolina, twelve in Louisiana, and fifteen in Mississippi. When considering all high schools in the South, Professor Robert Balfanz, who led the Hopkins researchers, found that only 5 percent high schools in the South graduate at least 90 percent of their students. He also found that while over half the high schools with low graduation rates in the South are high-poverty schools, most do not receive Title I funds.
Meanwhile, these schools’ accountability, at least in terms of improving their graduation rates, is almost nonexistent. As the report notes, neither the individual states nor the U.S. Department of Education seem to place making improvements in graduation rates at anywhere near the high level of importance that they assign to achieving higher test scores. Over the last few weeks, state after state has issued press releases touting higher test scores in reading and math, while turning a blind eye to the fact that portions of their student population continue to graduate at around 50 percent.
“Although Congress inserted graduation rate accountability provisions into the No Child Left Behind law, the lax enforcement on this accountability indicator at both the state and federal level has rendered this requirement virtually useless,” the report notes. “While states must meet stringent requirements to improve test scores or risk serious sanctions under this federal law, they face few consequences for failing to improve graduation rates.”
In North Carolina, for example, all students and student subgroups must improve test scores, step by step, until they reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014. If any subgroup misses one step, the school fails to make AYP and faces eventual sanctions such as district takeover. In contrast, while the state has set its graduation rate goal of 90 percent, it needs to make only the most minimal improvement, and subgroups are never required to show improvement, to meet AYP. If, for example, minority students continued to graduate at very low levels, but white students improved enough to raise the district graduation rate by as little as 1/10 of 1 percent over the prior year, the district would be considered to have made AYP.
The failure to graduate so many students is not without cost-it impacts both the individual and the region’s economic and social future. “Dropping out is related to failure in the job market and to criminal activity,” the report reads. Noting that failure to graduate from high school triples the likelihood of being imprisoned, the report also found that incarceration spending increased between 1980 and 2000 in every one of the states surveyed, from 60 percent in North Carolina to 201 percent in Mississippi. According to Professor Russell Rumberger of the University of California at Santa Barbara, the 114,382 students who were officially reported as dropouts by the five states combined during the 2002-2003 school year will cost a total of $29.7 billion dollars in lost wages, ranging from $1.2 billion in Mississippi to $12.1 billion in Florida.
Given these statistics, the southern states could make great progress in improving their economies and communities with a significant investment toward keeping students in school until graduation. “A renewed commitment to keeping more students in school until they graduate from high school is not just sound educational policy; it is sound economic, public safety and criminal justice policy,” the report reads. “Increasing on-time graduation rates offers a win/win strategy that will not only improve the region’s economic vitality, but will predictably reduce crime, lower incarceration costs, and salvage lives in the process.”
The complete report is available at http://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/dropouts/dropouts_south05.pdf.